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Archive for Friday, August 27, 2004

Test doesn’t predict success

August 27, 2004

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They're trying to reform the SAT again, which is like trying to turn a pit bull into a toy poodle. What they ought to do is euthanize this mutt.

This time they've added a writing section to the Scholastic Aptitude Test. That's because educators have been saying that writing is critical for success in college. Actually, university professors have been saying this for centuries. You have to wonder why the College Board, which administers the test, has only now caught on.

Oh well, an essay question can't hurt, can it? I wish the SAT had used one when I was a senior at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. All I remember are algebra formulas I had never seen before, and multiple-choice, verbal questions that looked suspiciously like an IQ test.

The highest possible SAT score is 1600. I can't remember my exact score, because I don't want to, but it was under 900.

On second thought, I don't think a writing test would have jacked up my score all that much. And it won't make much difference today for students in schools like mine. They don't have as many advanced placement classes or experienced teachers. Nor do they have affluent parents who can pay for expensive SAT preparation courses, as they do at privileged schools. Poor schools that can't teach reading and mathematics aren't going to teach writing any better.

Did I forget to mention that the poorest schools in Latino and black neighborhoods often don't have enough textbooks and other basics? That helps explain the growing gap between Latino and black SAT scores, and white and Asian scores.

Since 1990, according to the College Board's own study, the average verbal score among Mexican-American students dropped 4 points and their math scores stayed flat. Meanwhile, white students increased their verbal scores by 9 points and math by 15. Asian scores rose by 16 on the verbal exam and 19 in math.

Some college systems, including the University of California and Texas, try to compensate by accepting the top 10 percent or so of each high school's graduating class, but with mixed results. The fact is, most colleges across the country rely too heavily on the SAT. So do many scholarship programs.

Instead of tinkering with the SAT, we should kill it.

Although the test has its roots in the racist eugenics movement of the early 20th century -- they thought Jews and African-Americans were inherently dumb and college-incapable -- the supporters of scholastic testing doggedly pursued an exam that would measure how much a student had learned in 12 years.

It wasn't a bad idea if it weren't so simplistic, lazy and easily exploited.

A major flaw of today's SAT is that it's vulnerable to coaching and short-term improvements. How can you trust a test that, for the $800 price of a quickie prep course, can produce a gain of 100 points?

A test isn't much good if it can't predict something, and the SAT hasn't been proven to be a reliable predictor of college success.

A few years ago, plucky little Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania measured the first-semester grades of freshman with SAT scores of about 1000 against freshmen with 1200 scores or better. The results were virtually identical.

But the absolute, worst assumption of the SAT is that any young person's potential can be reduced to a number. It assumes that, after four years of college, a 900-point student from a poor school cannot catch up to or surpass the 1400-point student from a wealthy school.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm sure glad my boss didn't ask for my SAT score when I applied. Come to think of it, none of my employers have ever asked.

Some years ago, former University of California President Richard Atkinson called for dumping the SAT. He wanted to replace it with tests that try to measure achievement in specific subjects, rather than overall aptitude. The testocrats shot him down, but it's still a good idea and much better than a one-size-fits-all test that doesn't live up to its promise.




Joe Rodriguez is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. His e-mail address is jrodriguez@mercurynews.com.

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